|NATO - Bucharest|
BUCHAREST–It was a chastened French President Nicolas Sarkozy who landed in Bucharest yesterday, reeling from the domestic opposition he encountered after hinting at a new troop deployment in Afghanistan in a London speech last week.
The opposition tabled a symbolic non-confidence motion to censure his majority government and his critics suggested he was pulling France into a "new Vietnam" with the sole political purpose of cozying up to Washington.
Suggestions that France would send 1,000 troops to eastern Afghanistan were cut down to an announcement in the National Assembly this week that they planned to deploy "several hundred" to the international mission.
Even yesterday, French diplomats were warning the president would not be uttering the exact number or precise location of the new deployment when leaders sat down to discuss the troubled Afghan mission today.
But during an informal dinner of NATO leaders last night, France confirmed it is sending a battalion of soldiers to Afghanistan.
As a result, according to officials in Prime Minister Stephen Harper's office, the United States confirmed it would send to southern Afghanistan the 1,000 soldiers that Ottawa needs to extend the mission in Kandahar to 2011.
NATO spokesperson James Appathurai last night confirmed to journalists the French deployment, and reports suggested the new contribution would boost the 47,000-strong NATO force by about 800 soldiers.
It is expected that France will move its troops into the Kabul area and throughout eastern Afghanistan, essentially replacing American soldiers and freeing them up to move into the south.
Southern Afghanistan is the most dangerous region of the country and the source of most NATO casualties.
A NATO progress report released yesterday said Kandahar province was the second-most dangerous area of the country, behind Helmand province, where the bulk of British forces are stationed.
The U.S. decision to shift more resources into Kandahar will allow Canada's 2,500 soldiers to shift their focus from counter-insurgency, or offensive fighting, toward development, reconstruction and training the Afghan National Army and police force.
The Liberal opposition says a motion passed in the House of Commons last month means that Canadian troops will be forced to take a backseat to American forces, allowing them to take on the bulk of the fighting.
But the motion, backed by both the Conservatives and the Liberals, leaves operational decisions such as when to engage enemy fighters to Canadian commanders on the ground.
Critics say this leaves a large grey area where Canada's soldiers will still be free to fight in combat operations.
While the confirmation of an additional battle group to fight in Kandahar is a successful outcome for Canada, it is a less-than-positive result for the 26-member military alliance.
The original agreement between Ottawa and Washington was for U.S. troops to bail Canada out if it could find no other partner to fight in Kandahar.
Though France has come forward, no other NATO country was willing to directly take up Canada's call for help.
Significant political effort in the run-up to this summit went into convincing other European countries such as Germany, Spain, and Italy to shed the restrictions that limit them to the western and northern regions of Afghanistan.
"It's not the best solution because it gives the impression that the allies don't see the mission in the same light as the Americans," said Alain Pellerin, executive director of the Conference of Defence Associations in Ottawa.
"The Americans see it more as counterinsurgency in the south and they see it more as peacekeeping in the west and the north and therefore they (other NATO allies) don't want to commit themselves to the south.
"At least that's the impression from the outside if you look at the response, or the non-response of the allies."
Allan Woods 4/3/2008